Q: What exactly is loaded language, and how should journalists handle it?


Loaded language should come with the warning, “Handle with Care.” This term refers to words and phrases that induce a strong emotional response and carry a positive or negative connotation beyond their literal meaning. Some examples include bureaucrat vs. public servant, illegal immigrant vs. asylum seeker, militant vs. freedom fighter, vigilante vs. protestor, and unborn child vs. fetus. The terms pro-life and pro-choice are also examples of loaded language that try to present each side in the abortion debate in a positive framework. 

The problem with this emotionally charged language is that it can influence people without them realizing it. Republican pollster Frank Luntz told NPR people are more likely to oppose the estate tax if it’s called a “death tax” and more likely to support drilling for oil when it’s referred to as “energy exploration.” When it comes to gun regulations, “gun violation prevention” polls 17-20 points better than “gun control,” which some interpret as government interference with Second Amendment rights.

To help journalists navigate these language landmines, the International Press Institute has pulled together a glossary of hot-button words and phrases that journalists should avoid.

In the On the Media podcast, “Loaded Language,” the glossary’s editor, Naomi Hunt, said there is no such thing as entirely objective language, but that journalists should be careful of phrases that could be interpreted as a taking side like “caught in the crossfire,” which implies that civilians were accidentally killed. “Until it has been clarified whether the action was purposeful and whether the person killed was really a civilian, it is better to simply say they were killed,” said Hunt, adding that news consumers should be aware that the language they’re consuming often reflects a particular point of view.

That’s why journalists strive to report the news with precision and clarity and intentionally avoid terms that undermine their neutrality. In a Poynter report on the importance of word choice, Roy Peter Clark says he asks himself these six questions when so-called language wars intensify:

  1. What is the literal meaning of the questionable word or phrase?
  2. Does that word or phrase have any connotations, that is, associations that are positive or negative?
  3. How does the word correspond to what is actually happening on the ground?
  4. What group (sometimes called a “discourse community”) favors one locution over another, and why?
  5. Is the word or phrase “loaded”?  How far does it steer us from neutral?
  6. Does the word or phrase help me see, or does it prevent me from seeing?

Clark advises journalists to let readers draw their own conclusions by describing a person or group and their actions (aka show, don’t tell) rather than defaulting to simplistic labels that may or may not be a fair representation. 

That’s what the BBC has decided to do when reporting on attacks like the 2019 London Bridge knife stabbing. The UK news outlet has now banned the use of the terms “terrorist” and “terror attack” unless it is quoting someone, referring instead to the location and methods used to carry out the attack. This practice has led to charges that the outlet is “sanitizing the behavior of terrorists,” but a senior BBC official defended the policy in an interview with The Express, saying, “It boils down to that phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’” 

Same policy for Reuters reporters. Instead of using the word “terrorist,” they are advised to use more specific terms such as “bomber,” “hijacker” or “gunman” so that the audience can draw its own conclusions. 

NPR has also come out against all politicized language and tells its reporters to use neutral words that foster understanding instead. The NPR Ethics Handbook states: 

Strive to use words and phrases that accurately deliver information without taking sides on emotional or political issues. Politically loaded language not only violates our commitment to be fair, but also gets in the way of telling good stories. It makes readers and listeners stop to consider whether we’re biased in favor of one side or the other.

So, for example, we report about efforts to “overhaul” health care or tax policy, not the “reform” that advocates on all sides say they are pursuing. “Reform” is in the eye of the beholder. “Overhaul” is a better, less-charged word. In such cases we go with what’s accurate. And err on the side of neutrality.

Neutrality seems to be what the audience wants too. In two separate studies, NPR found that “balanced and unbiased reporting is what drives listeners to tune in to NPR and what they perceive the defining characteristic of NPR to be.”

So words matter, and it’s up to all of us—journalists and news consumers alike– to approach loaded language with the extreme caution it deserves.